No matter how many great movies come and go, there is that one masterpiece which always stands out; something to go back to time and again, irrespective of how many times one has seen it. Sholay (meaning “Embers”) is one such Bollywood classic. When producer G. P. Sippy and director-son Ramesh Sippy released Sholay in 1975, they never imagined it would create movie history by becoming the longest running Bollywood movie. During its 19 year run, Sholay earned 150 million ($3.5 million).
All big things start small and Sholay is a testimony to that fact. It began as a four line idea that writer duo Salim-Javed pitched to Ramesh Sippy, who liked the concept and hired them to develop it. The original idea was simple; an army officer decides to hire two ex-soldiers to avenge the murder of his family. The officer was later changed to a policeman as Sippy felt it would be more difficult to obtain permission to film from the army. They completed the script in just a month, borrowing many character names and personalities from their friends and acquaintances.
Though the movie drew heavily from Western and older Indian themes, it showcased an element of intrigue that was unique for its age. Its characters breathed life and freshness into it. The role of the villain Gabbar Singh (played by late Amjad Khan) was modelled on a real-life dacoit of the same name, who menaced villagers and policemen around Gwalior in the 1950s. Dharmendra as the jovial and naughty Veeru, Amitabh Bachchan as the calm and thoughtful Jai, late Sanjeev Kumar as the grave Thakur Baldev Singh, Hema Malini as the talkative Basanti and Jaya Bhaduri as the quiet Radha, immortalized Sholay. Pairing of two real-life couples (Amitabh & Jaya, Dharmendra & Hema) only added to the appeal. The film was the turning point in the career of most of its cast and crew.
Sholay was a lavish production for its time. It took two and a half years to make, and went 300,000 ($7,000) over budget, mainly cause of Ramesh Sippy re-filming scenes many times to get his desired effect. When first released, Sholay opened to a tepid response, but word of mouth convinced movie-goers to give the film a chance, and soon it became a box office phenomenon. It ran for 286 weeks straight in one Mumbai theatre. Though trade journals and columnists initially called the expensive film a flop, over time, Sholay’s critical reception improved and it is regarded among the greatest Hindi films today.
In 2006, The Film Society of Lincoln Center described the film as “an extraordinary and utterly seamless blend of adventure, comedy, music and dance”, labelling it “an indisputable classic”. In the obituary of producer G. P. Sippy in 2007, The New York Times said that “Sholay revolutionized Hindi filmmaking and brought true professionalism to Indian script writing”. In 2010, on the film’s 35th anniversary, the Hindustan Times called Sholay “a trailblazer in terms of camera work as well as music”, and said that “practically every scene, dialogue and small character was a highlight”.
Sholay inspired many imitations in cinema and television and spawned a whole sub-genre of films, the “Curry Westerns” (Indian term for Spaghetti Westerns). The film was also a watermark for Indian scriptwriters, who until then were not paid very well. Sholay has been the subject of at least two books – Wimal Dissanayake and Malti Sahai’s Sholay, A Cultural Reading (1992) and Anupama Chopra’s Sholay, The Making of a Classic (2000). In 2004, Sholay was digitally remastered and shown again to packed theaters in India, including the Minerva, where it had run so successfully 29 years earlier. Bollywood director Subhash Ghai is reportedly in negotiations to convert the movie to 3D format.